Russian involvement in China’s moon exploration divides space research camps

Washington — China aims to mark a new milestone in space exploration next week when its Chang’e-6 probe is expected to return to Earth from the far side of the moon with rock and soil samples.

Scientists involved in the project say the probe is likely to bring back a “treasure trove” of material that will shed light on the differences between the front and back of Earth’s satellite.

James Head is an American planetary scientist and professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University.  He has 15 years of experience in cooperating with the Chinese scientific community and participated in the research for the Chang’e-6 lunar landing.

He told VOA in a video interview that the samples brought back by Chang’e-6 from the far side of the moon will be “a treasure chest of fragments of materials, all of which are going to tell us something about why the moon is different on the near side and the far side. It’s just amazing.”

“It’s going to be an international treasure trove of information for space planetary scientists,” he added.

The strength of China’s space science and technology, demonstrated by the Chang’e series of lunar exploration projects, has also attracted the participation of other countries.

The European Space Agency, France, Italy, and Pakistan responded to the “Chang’e-6 Mission International Payload Cooperation Opportunity Announcement” released by the China National Space Administration in 2019.

They were selected to carry out exploration on the lunar surface and lunar orbit.

Head said, “Not every country has the ability to launch rockets to the moon. So, if you can use your capability, then that’s a big deal for international relationships for the countries — essentially the way they’re perceived in the world.”

The mission, which comes 55 years after the U.S. first sent humans to the moon, has attracted the attention and participation of European and American scientists.  However, it also comes at a time when geopolitical tensions are pulling Russia and China closer together to counter Western democracies.  Analysts worry that our lunar exploration and space research are quickly being divided into two camps as well.

As China makes significant progress in its lunar program, it is also actively courting other countries to form a parallel alliance with the U.S.-led lunar exploration program.

China and Russia have been planning to cooperate in building the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) since 2021. On June 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law approving the cooperation agreement signed by Russia and China last year on the joint construction of the ILRS.

Countries currently participating in the ILRS initiative also include Venezuela, Pakistan, South Africa, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Nicaragua and a university in the United Arab Emirates.

Namrata Goswami, lecturer in space policy and international relations at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, told VOA, “They’re (China is) actually changing the narrative to tell nations that want to collaborate with them, that their station is like a strategic high ground, and nations that actually collaborate with China will benefit from this particular focus, which is space resource utilization, and they have stated that officially now.”

The Chinese government has said it adheres to the peaceful use of space, but Western analysts have questioned China’s motives for developing the moon.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA in an email, “China tends to have a more mercantilist view of the moon that aligns with its authoritarian form of government, which is in stark contrast to the open, transparent, and free market approach of the United States and its partners.”

China has even proposed establishing an Earth-Moon space economic zone and has drawn up a roadmap for it with an annual “total output value of more than US$10 trillion” by around 2050.

Harrison said, “China’s main partner for its lunar research base is Russia, and they have managed to attract a handful of other nations to join them, most of which have no significant space capabilities or financial resources to contribute.”

In contrast, NASA and the U.S. State Department jointly launched the Artemis Accords in 2020, reaching a multilateral arrangement with more than 30 countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, stipulating the principles of civil exploration and cooperation among the contracting parties in outer space.

Neither China nor Russia have joined the agreement initiated by the U.S. Dmitry Rogozin, former head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, even said that the Artemis Accords were “illegal” and not in compliance with international law.

“You do see a very clear strategic alignment structure forming, also very long-term clear ambitions as to what each coalition is hoping to do,” said Goswami.

Experts say the lunar exploration race of China and Russia versus the U.S. is about more than just resource extraction.

Harrison said, “This is really about setting precedent for how space commerce will be conducted and establishing norms of behavior for activities on the moon. A key component of this race is building international partnerships with shared values and a shared understanding of how the lunar economy should work for the benefit of all. In this respect, China has fallen behind the United States and the free world.”

For the European Space Agency, the Chang’e-6 may be their last lunar exploration experiment in cooperation with China, according to an interview posted on the website SpaceNews.

“For the moment there are no decisions to continue the cooperation on the Chang’e-7 or -8,” Karl Bergquist, ESA’s international relations administrator, he told SpaceNews.

China plans its next lunar probes in the Chang’e series around 2026 and from 2028.

Bergquist also told SpaceNews the ESA will not be involved in the China-led ILRS.

“ESA will not cooperate on ILRS as this is a Sino-Russian initiative and space cooperation with Russia is at present under embargo,” he said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the European Union, together with the U.S., has imposed embargoes and sanctions on several Russian industries, including a technical embargo on the Russian space industry. The European Space Agency has also terminated its planned lunar exploration project with Russia.

Meanwhile, China has stepped-up its space cooperation with Russia, including allowing Moscow Power Engineering Institute to open a branch at its newest spaceport on southern Hainan Island.

Europe and China’s space technology cooperation will continue at least until the Chang’e-6 probe lands back on Earth. The ESA is offering ground support for the return flight from its Maspalomas space station in Gran Canaria island in Spain.

The probe is scheduled to land at a site in Inner Mongolia around June 25.  

comments: